I found Naomi Wolf’s recent article telling young women to abandon their vocal fry, really frustrating. Not because it was something I hadn’t heard before, but because it was it was being said by someone many people think of as a feminist leader. I am of the opinion that you should listen to people because they are human and have something to say, not because of how they sound when speaking. While I think vocal fry is a feminist issue, I think it points at an even larger issue, which is that we are terrible listeners. People are constantly dismissed for failing to speak using the same vocabulary, grammar, and inflection as those who hold a majority of the power. Too often, we judge other people on how eloquently they are able to express themselves as opposed to the actual content of what they saying.
I am ashamed to admit I do this too, all of the time. If someone speaks or writes in a way that is unfamiliar or “incorrect” to me I pass judgement and often begin to discredit what is actually being said. Plenty of people have important and empowering things to say and are unable or choose not to express themselves in ways we traditionally think of as eloquent and commanding. And there is certainly no lack of people that speak articulately and say heinous things that are given more credit than they deserve just because they speak with authority. I am so tired of being tricked into listening and believing what people say just because they speak with authority. Aren’t you?
I am much more inclined to believe people whose voices shake and stutter when they speak. People whose speech doesn’t sound rehearsed. It took me years to realize that the people around me weren’t necessarily more knowledgeable than me, they just spoke with more confidence. I don’t feel as though it is a personal failing that I am uncomfortable speaking with authority. I think declarative statements often stifle discussion by not allowing for the possibility that what you are saying may be wrong. All through school I would get in trouble for starting sentences with “I think”. I was taught that it was actually better to claim something as fact than to admit I could be wrong. How frustrating, that people will only listen to you if you pretend you are an expert.
I do think it is important to speak and write in a way that other people can understand, but I think it is equally, if not more, important for us to try to do a better job of listening. We need, desperately, to stop dismissing the thoughts and feelings of people just because we are unfamiliar with the ways in which they choose to express themselves. We shouldn’t be sending the message that you will only be heard if you speak a certain way. Instead, let’s start teaching people how to weed through their biases and get to the heart of what is being said, because that is what’s truly important.